The film begins with 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) on the edge of a cliff, clinging to his mother as she is about to fall into abyss. He lets go. Conor wakes up from what seems to be a recurring nightmare. The next morning, he goes into his mother’s bedroom to see her sleeping. He makes himself breakfast. His mom (Felicity Jones) joins him she has no hair, evidence of a battle with cancer. He tells her that he’s done his chores. She says they’re going to try a new round of chemotherapy and that Conor’s grandma is coming so he won’t have to make breakfast every morning. He asks how long she’ll be there, disappointed. His mom promises just for a few days.
At school, a boy stares at Conor while he’s in class. Afterwards, he physically assaults him in the schoolyard while the bully’s friends watch.
That night, Conor goes to sleep. When his clock ticks over from 12:06 to 12:07, he hears a voice booming from outside, calling out his name. The massive yew tree outside of his house shape-shifts until it turns into a giant tree monster. Conor casually shouts for him to go away but the monster carries Conor out of his bedroom and into their garden. The monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) tells Conor that he doesn’t often come walking but when he does, he expects to be listened to. Conor is defiant towards him. The Monster tells him he will visit again and he will tell three stories and when he’s finished his three stories, Conor will tell him a fourth and it will be the truth, his truth. And the truth will be what he hides and is most afraid of that he dreams of. This truth is why Conor called him. Conor then finds himself back in his room which is covered in leaves, leading him to realize it wasn’t a dream.
The next morning, Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is there. She has wigs for Conor’s mom and tells Conor to put a kettle on. She finds Conor in the kitchen and is condescending towards him. He tells her to leave his mother always gets sick after the treatments and will be better in a day. His grandma tells him that she won’t be better the next day even if she seems better; she says they need to talk about Conor coming to live with her.
That night, Conor’s grandma sleeps in Conor’s bedroom and he sleeps in the living room. The clock clicks from 12:06 to 12:07 but no monster comes. He then sees him outside the window. The Monster tells Conor his first tale, told in beautiful animation in a happy kingdom lived a king who lost all of his sons to battles with giants or dragons. His only remaining heir was a grandson who grew up to be a prince who was loved by the kingdom. There were rumors that his new wife, replacing his first after she died of a broken heart, had poisoned him but the king begged the kingdom not to blame her. Now queen, the woman wanted to keep her title by marrying her stepson, the prince, but instead he rides away with the farmer’s daughter, whom he had fallen in love with. They slept under the branches of a yew tree (the same tree that has become the Monster) but when the Prince awoke, he found out that the woman had been murdered in the night. Men then approached to arrest him. He asked the yew tree for help and the Monster came alive, scaring the village into rallying behind the prince as he claims the queen murdered his wife. The queen is attacked by a mob and the Monster says that she was never seen again. Conor then asks if he can help do something about his grandma. The monster interjects that the story isn’t done the queen wasn’t killed; the Monster had carried her to a new village, far enough away that her people wouldn’t find her. Conor asks why he would spare the life of a woman who murdered the farmer’s daughter. The Monster says he never said the queen killed the farmer’s daughter; only that the prince had said it was so. He then reveals the prince had murdered his bride to frame the queen to turn the kingdom against her; the prince then continued to be loved by the kingdom. Conor is irritated and complains that the lesson of the good prince being a murderer and the queen not being a witch is trite. The Monster says the queen might have been a witch and could have become evil but he kept her safe because she was not a murderer and the king didn’t die of poisoning but of old age. There is no good guy in the story; most people are in between good and bad. Sometimes kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmer’s daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving. Conor asks how this is going to save him from his grandma and the Monster tells him it’s not the grandma he needs saving from.
The next day, in class, the bully stares down Conor and later, he beats him up outside. When Conor gets home, his grandma tells him his mother had to go back to the hospital and that the chemotherapy is not working. Conor’s dad is coming in from America. Conor sees his mom in her room, wearing a wig. She speaks gingerly about the topic of her health, telling Conor the last treatment didn’t work as they expected it to but they’re going to try something else.
Conor now stays with his grandma in her house. She tells him of her antique grandfather clock it’s been in her family for generations and she forbids him to touch it. She leaves him alone in the house which is immaculate and tidy. Conor’s dad visits and the two go out to a restaurant. Conor is insistent his mom will be fine because she’s taking some new medicine that will make her better. Conor’s dad tells him his sister’s doing well; Conor interjects she’s his half-sister. His dad tells him she can’t wait to meet him and he’s trying to arrange for Conor to come to L.A. Conor is excited about getting to leave his grandma’s house but his dad explains he meant just for Christmas. Conor doesn’t want to live in his grandma’s house, pointing out it’s an old lady’s house where you can’t touch anything or sit anywhere he wants his own space and his own room. Conor’s dad points out that in America, they barely have enough room for the three of them and that Conor’s school is in Europe; but we know that Conor is bullied at school and he doesn’t seem to mind the idea of leaving.
Back at his grandma’s house, the two find Conor’s grandmother has returned to the hospital. Conor’s dad tells him he’s only there until Friday because Americans don’t get much holiday. Conor tells him he’s not American and he asks him why he came. His dad tells him he came because his mother asked him to.
Conor settles into his grandma’s living room, now upset. He begins tearing up the house, even ripping up the clock which she had told him was so important to her. The hands stop at 12:07. The Monster is now in the living room, telling Conor that he is going to tell him the second tale. Again, we see it illustrated in puppet animation 150 years ago, the valley was filled with factories. An apothecary lived in the village, digging up herbs and barks and berries and leaves for his medicine. But when he tries to sell his goods to people in the village, they are rude to him because they prefer modern medicine. Where Conor’s house and the yew tree are now used to be a church with a parson inside. The parson had two daughters whom he loved very much. The apothecary wanted the yew tree (which is now the Monster) because of its healing powers but he would have to cut it down and the parson refuses. The Monster notes that the parson was not unkind but wanted to take the village out of the days of superstition and witchery. He preaches against the apothecary in church and the town is easily turned against him. But one day, the parson’s daughters become very sick and no modern doctor is able to cure them. He approaches the apothecary and begs him to help his innocent daughters. The apothecary asks, “Why should I? You drew away my business with your preachings and you refused to give me the yew tree which can help with my healing.” The parson tells him he may have the yew tree and he will preach sermons in his favor if he will save his daughters. The apothecary asks, “You would give up everything you believe in?” The parson affirms this, saying to save his daughters, he’ll give up everything. The apothecary says, “Then there is nothing I can do to help you.” The very next day, both of the daughter’s died. And that night, the yew tree came along and became monstrous. Conor thinks he is going to punish the apothecary but he actually tears the parson’s house apart. The Monster points out that the apothecary was not the bad guy when times were easy, the parson nearly destroyed the apothecary but when things were tough, he was willing to throw aside every belief to save his daughters. If the parson had given the yew tree to the apothecary when he first asked, he could have saved many lives, including the parson’s daughters. Even though the apothecary was greedy and rude, he was still a healer. The parson was a man of belief who was willing to sacrifice it at the first challenge. He believed selfishly and fearfully.
The Monster then continues to destroy the parson’s house in the story knocking down the fireplace, throwing away their beds, smashing the furniture, breaking the windows. Conor helps out, smashing things. But when he returns back to Grandma’s sitting room, he realizes it wasn’t just a fantasy the entire living room and everything in it has been smashed to pieces (including her clock). His grandma returns home. She takes in the scene with horror in her eyes. Conor is afraid he is going to be punished but she is in such anguish, she can only let out a scream, knocking over the last standing display cabinet.
That night, Conor’s grandma is heard in her bedroom, weeping. The next morning, he finds his father cooking eggs, telling Conor that his grandma had called him to tell him about the living room. She has rushed to the hospital and he will drive him to school. Conor complains that he wants to go to the hospital. His dad tells him he knows he’s been upset hence the living room. Conor asks if he’s going to be punished but his dad said there’s no point.
The next day at school, Conor is bullied again but not assaulted. Conor goes to the hospital afterwards. He overhears his mom, sick and upset, but she covers it up when he enters her hospital room. She tells Conor that she had a bad reaction that morning but they’re going to try a new medicine to get some good results and it’s medicine that comes from the yew tree like the one in their backyard. She says all this time they could have just chopped it down to cure her but not the one in their actual yard because it’s almost like a friend.
Conor and his dad go on a walk and Conor learns that his dad is going back to America. He promises to return in two weeks. Conor is optimistic that the new medicine will make his mom well (since it comes from the yew tree and he considers that prophetic given his visits from the Yew Tree Monster) but his dad points out it’s a last ditch effort and that it won’t help her. He tells Conor that stories don’t always end up the way we want them to.
That night, Conor waits until the clock clicks to 12:07. He goes into the garden and shouts for the Monster, who then reveals himself. He asks the tree if he can make his mom better but the Monster says it’s not up to him but if she can be healed, the yew tree will do it. The Monster says, “You still don’t know why you’ve called me.” He points out he doesn’t visit people often and says it’s not yet time for his third tale but soon. And then Conor will tell him his truth and then we see the nightmare he had at the beginning, of him clinging to his mother’s hands as she is about to fall into an abyss. He writes it off as just a nightmare. He asks what is going to happen to his mother and the Monster replies, “Do you not know already?”
Days go by and the Monster no longer visits. Conor continues visiting his mom in the hospital. When he’s in school, his bully comes and bullies him while he eats lunch (around 12:06 PM). He tells Conor he isn’t going to bully him anymore because he thinks it’d be a much worst fate to be invisible. The bully then spills Conor’s orange juice on his art book where he has drawn a picture of his mother. As he walks away, the bully remarks, sardonically, that he’s sorry about his mother. The Monster appears then in the cafeteria, now 12:07. He tells Conor it’s time for the third tale there was once an invisible man who was tired of being unseen. It wasn’t that he was actually invisible but that people had become used to not seeing him. The invisible man called for a monster to make them see. While this story is told, Conor charges up the cafeteria and attacks the bully, pummeling him in an explosion of rage.
Conor is now in the principal’s office. She asked what came over him; his tormenter is now in the hospital and his parents are threatening to sue. Conor claims it was the Monster who did the hitting but we flashback to Conor pummeling his bully, screaming “I’m not invisible!” over and over. As he regains control of himself, the Monster tells him that all invisible men learn that there are harder things than not being seen. Back to the present, the principal says school rules dictate immediate exclusion but she can’t do that to him. She tells him to go back to class and they will talk about the incident some day in the future. She adds there is no point in punishment, just like his father after he destroyed the living room.
That day, Conor is taken to the hospital. His mom is even sicker than before and tells him the new treatment isn’t working. Conor doesn’t believe it since it’s from the yew tree. She tells him things have moved really fast. He asks what treatment is next but she doesn’t reply there aren’t any more treatments. His mom apologizes and says she’s sorry. He tells her she’s been lying to him the whole time. She responds that deep in his heart, he must have known, adding that it’s okay for him to be angry and if he needs to break things, he should break them. And if he ever feels bad about being too angry to talk to her, that it’s okay because she knows what he needs to tell her without being able to say it out loud.
Conor asks his grandma to take him back home but clarifies he means his house, with the yew tree. She drops him off and then heads back to the hospital, telling she’ll return in one hour. Conor runs to the graveyard with the yew tree on top. He screams for it to wake up. The Monster appears. Conor screams that the yew tree didn’t make her better like the Monster promised it would. The tree replies that he said if his mom could be healed, the yew tree would do it but she could not be. Conor screams for the Monster to fix her or else he has no purpose since the stupid stories just got him into trouble. The Monster says Conor was the one who called him and only he knows why. Conor says if he called the Monster, it was to save his mom and heal her. The Monster says, he didn’t come to heal her but to heal Conor.
The Monster says it’s time for the fourth tale. The hillside turns into the cliff that Conor has seen in his recurring nightmare. His mother is standing on the edge, looking frail as ever. Conor screams for her to get away. Black smoke swirls around them as Conor asks his mom to run away from the cliff. A monster made of a black cloud forms and pulls his mom over the cliff. But Conor catches her hands and he hold on just like in his nightmare. Conor struggles to hold on while the Cloud Monster tries to pull her into the abyss. The Yew Tree Monster tells Conor this is the fourth tale, the truth of Conor O’Malley. And his mom falls into the cliff. Conor finds himself back in the clearing. He tells the Monster this is where he normally takes up; he asks to see his mom. The Monster tells him she is no longer there because he let her go; he must tell the truth or he will never leave the story they’re currently in.
The Monster points out that Conor let his mother go he could have held on for longer but let her fall. The Monster begs Conor to ask why he let her go. Conor finally responds he did it because he wants it to be over and he can’t stand it anymore; he wants it to be finished so he let her go and let her die. Conor asks why the Cloud Monster didn’t kill him; he deserves punishment. He admits he always knew she wasn’t going to get better but he convinced himself she would. And a part of him wanted it to be over because it makes him feel so alone and that he wished it would end, even if that meant losing her. He cries that he didn’t mean to let her die (in the nightmare) but now she’s going to die in real life and it’s all his fault. The Monster tells him that’s not the truth at all; Conor was merely wishing to end his pain which is the most human wish of all. Conor says he didn’t mean it but the Monster says he did and he did not. Conor asks how that can be rue? The monster asks, “How can a prince be a murderer and a savior? How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking? How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen? Because humans are complicated beasts. You believe comforting lies while knowing full well the painful truths that make those lies necessary.” He tells Conor that he almost died when attacked by the Cloud Monster rather than speak the truth and that’s what he needs to do now.
Exhausted, Conor goes to sleep on the hilltop. When he awakes, his grandma is there, having searched for him. She hurries Conor to the car to get to the hospital. While she frantically drives through town, Conor apologizes for the living room and she tells him it doesn’t matter, adding that they are not the most natural fit but they’ll have to learn. And that they have one thing in common they both love his mother. The two burst into his mother’s hospital room and are told they got there in time. Conor’s mom is slowly dying and she is assured that Conor and her mother are both there. The Monster appears in the room and tells Conor here is the end of the tale. The clock is about to turn 12:07. The Monster tells him all that’s left is for him to speak the simplest of truths. Conor tells his dying mother he doesn’t want her to go. The Monster tells Conor that the story ends with the boy holding on tight to his mother and in doing so, is finally able to let her go. As she begins to die, Conor’s mom looks up to where the tree is and smiles, as if she can see him, too.
Conor returns to his grandmother’s house where they have settled into a more harmonious living situation. He finds a book of his mom’s artwork, akin to his own. Flipping through, he finds the final page is a sketch of the yew tree as a Monster, revealing that he had appeared to her, too, as a child.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Conor is a 12-year-old who is dealing with a recurring nightmare while his mom is being treated for cancer. One night, a Monster in the form of a giant tree comes to him and promises to tell him three stories. These fairy tales come in alignment with the changes in Conor’s life having to move in with his grandma, being bullied, and watching his mother’s treatments fail. Eventually he learns the Monster is there to help him accept his mother’s death and he is able to let her die. In the final scene, he learns that the mother could also see the Monster when she was a child and needed guidance.
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